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The Pastoral Care Tea Cup- A Question of Contents and the Cup!

 Revd Ninan Chacko MA, DPS, Pastoral Counselor

Church of South India, Diocese of Madras, and Chaplain, Madras Medical Mission,

Chennai City, India

 Like many of us here, I too have been, by training and education, influenced and shaped by western pastoral care models of care, counselling and communication. The counselling techniques and tools recommended often wear alien apparels. One honestly feels rather uncomfortable, at times, in these tight fitting garments, and one experiences the pinch which only the wearer can explain, I have reasons to think. I have often been a little puzzled by this on going conflict and confusion while I relate myself with people in crisis situations, during my pastoral encounters. Over the years I also have made some feeble attempts to wriggle out of it while struggling to wean myself away from some of these fetters. I must be fair to myself and other when I confess that I have personally embraced them while under training and during my pastoral formation. True, I had gladly welcomed them at some time of my pastoral history, during the period when I was on the anvil, theological and pastoral .It was at a time when my sensibilities were being shaped and formed in the wombs of time, a season of my growth and development as a young pastoral care person in the university, seminary and parish. I must honestly confess that some of those tools have dominated my life as pastor and they determined my pastoral responses as a member of the caring profession. Fortunately, my daily encounter with real people in real life situations offered me more opportunities for reflection and introspection in some of these areas .I am only sharing these struggles with you, my fellow travelers, as I search for possible alternatives or solutions. Perhaps, we can together grapple with this dilemma, and arrive at some possible consensus as people shaped within a certain theological and educational frame work while being faithful to our faith tradition in a cultural context.

    I experienced some critical moments when I wanted to wean myself away from some of the pastoral moss which I gathered while grew up in the ponds of theology and counseling. True what I had accumulated over the years became a burden since my shoulders were not broad enough to carry them. In my encounters in the hospital wards and my on going dialogue with people outside the fold of the Church in an Indian and inter faith context my borrowed assumptions of counseling and communication under went radical paradigm shifts. In crisis situations in the hospital, in the college and in the parish, I discovered the inherent limitations of these theories and concepts which we hold so sacred to our ministry. Some of them have a tight halo around them, I realized now, rather painfully. In wearing them I too felt head aches, though they shaped my pastoral practice of a previous era. Deep within me, I felt a growing disquiet and uneasiness with the pastoral attire I had put on for communication and counselling.

    Those theories and formulae in pastoral care and counseling definitely put me on a pedestal, or at a higher altitude, and I tended to operate from a point of strength. The analytical mind set and my “enviable” knowledge of human behaviour made my human response rather artificial and superficial. They came in my way of making myself vulnerable and open to the human predicament I encountered on a daily basis. They blurred my perceptions and coloured my understanding of fellow humans in some significant sense .They were like a thick blanket of summer dust storm in
Agra city veiling the vision of the beautiful Taj Mahal and its pristine glory in marble! The schools of pastoral care and counseling, which I relished and reveled at one time, appeared like the huge grave stone which  had to be rolled away on the Easter morning. Or, was it like a mill stone which has been tied to my neck, I wondered. The Berlin wall of separation came between me and the community of those in pain and great sorrow; it is no exaggeration to state. My portion of sharing the pain, and the understanding of human beings as they go through situations of doubt, grief, sorrow and suffering was conspicuous by its absence in this process. I found myself in an alien planet of their anguish, anger and unease, while engaged in the art of analyzing and calculating with the aid of counseling theories and communication techniques, handed down to me by my counselling and communication training

  .My listening and my responses were determined by a Clinebell or a Rogers or  some such pastoral care pundits  in an academic setting ,far removed from the human tragedy and unexplained suffering in the culture which I belong to. My understanding of human behaviour was rooted and grounded in behavioural sciences, and I had been heavily fed a lot by them. My borrowed materials did stand in good standing when I used the public platforms, and when I remained at a very high academic knowledge level. My respectable position as a member of a medical school added to the conflict and dilemma within me while in communication with real people in real life situations. But I was far removed from the sensibilities which are required for addressing the dilemmas of sorrow and grief. Kubler Ross, for example, and the Ten steps of breaking bad news, by Peter Paye, had no relevance to the human cultural conditions of death in my context. How do I stand along side those my brethren while I am rooted and grounded in my theories of death and dying? My standing as an on looker and analyst was fine, but my involvement and co-participation as fellow sufferer was more important to me and to those with whom I share the ground of our being. The organizational standing I enjoyed and my speaking assignments actually aggravated the on going struggles within me, as the dilemma of being an academic and a co-sufferer became so real in each situation.

 In my search for a more meaningful pastoral care, theory and practice, I fed myself on some whose spirituality and communication were significantly rooted in the native soil. They were spiritual giants and the levels they reached in spirituality and eastern mysticism were significantly captivating. Some of them included Christians and certain others from the living faiths around us. They were, I discovered, some of the most caring people, without the trappings of counselling and communication theories, so called in our curriculum and university parlours. I have in mind some one like Sadhu Sunder Singh, Ramana Maharshi, some of the Oriental church fathers and the Catholic spiritual therapists. Then I read the Gospels afresh, and I did find something radically different from what I am educated and trained in, or what I have gleaned from the schools of pastoral care. I was amused a little, and puzzled more, to discover that my spirituality was undernourished while my superficial theories of communication, care and counseling were gaining ground in the process.

   The direction I should, therefore, take, I was convinced, was towards the fullness of Christ, than the westward direction of excessive and exceeding individualistic understanding of communication, community, care and counselling. My intellectual pretensions and knowledge of the various schools of counselling, communication and pastoral care had very little to offer to the relatives, the friends, the clinicians and the nurses and others with whom I was involved at various levels of care. Instead, the strength of my cultural communication, my spirituality and history empowered me to make the connections with those around me. The assumptions I had made about care, all along the road mostly traveled, hit the icebergs of cultural alienation and communication vacuum. In my efforts to care for the person the connections were clogged, and some times they were missing. Further, the sense of belonging and community in the experience of suffering and caring were being fractured and fragmented, I realized. Here I was in anguish over my communicating skills while attempting to care for this member of a suffering community, of a host of relatives, neighbours and friends. There were these my co-participants in the process of care as well, and I was all the time alienating myself from them, as I claimed for myself some special powers and magic, as it were. Within me my theories of care and counseling were at logger heads with my community sensibilities and deeply felt need for solidarity with the suffering... Needless to add, the nature of my communications significantly affected my relationships to the community dimension of care.

I re-read the agony and anguish at
Gethsemane. There were these faithful guys, the inner wheel of the disciples, James, John, Peter and James, sleeping soundly. A stone throw away was the Master, pleading if the cup of suffering be removed. The Father’s will would be the ultimate, he knew without a shadow of doubt. While he was still awaiting the final outcome his sweat turned to blood, and the angels were ministering to Him.  He came back, and found them heavy with sleep, he understood how their spirits were willing, but the flesh was weak. But he had something beautiful to say to them, you are those who stood with me in my trials. That scene, for me, describes death and dying. It sums up the whole pastoral predicament and its human vulnerability in essence. There were no theories of pastoral care determining the response of the disciples. The suffering had to be confronted, experienced, and not solved. I wonder if we should be anesthetized or analgesied either, by our pastoral chemical formulae!

      The challenge is to feel the weight of the ultimate, wrestle with the inevitable and be transformed by the vulnerability and the presence of God where we failed to watch vigil over the immediate and approaching death. The mystery of death and dying is best understood by the community, the relatives and friends after it is being realized and acknowledged by the dying himself .Before clinical decisions on death are made the cultural understanding of death and suffering have been pronounced .We can only  say the benediction over their prayer for release and grieving. We can only stand with the living clutching their frail hands in sharing the pain and agony of the inevitable. The rituals, the community and the family take over and the circle of grief, and grieving is complete when the fires die down at the pyre or the coffin is laid and covered with mother earth. The food prepared in the neighbours’ house and the memorial which follows give the dead the finishing touch on this side of eternity. The therapeutic value of solidarity and support for the living is part of our pastoral care. If not we, some certain others would have taken over from us, and they, in land of the living, continues to function without us.

    Am I claiming for myself a certain exclusive knowledge and skill which others did not possess? They too could reach out like me, or perhaps, better, than me in that process of care, I discovered. My friendship with that person was far too individualistic and too narrow to embrace his pain and doubt. He was the friend of the publicans and the prostitutes, the tax collectors and the people afflicted with leprosy. I went over all such passages where the friendship of Christ overwhelmed all hierarchical notions about his authority. In the healing friendship there is no hierarchy, I learnt. In the hierarchy of relationships and organizational hierarchy the concept of friendship and the practice of it are threatening to the theories of care. That reminded me the words of that theologian who suggested that pastoral care is, ultimately friendship (Moltman).A better way to state the obvious would be that it is incarnation which is at the heart of care and communication. He was simply echoing the words of the Master carer himself!

         The Master and Lord was known for the company that he kept, and his friendship at the well tells all about his theory and practice of care. Have we professionalized care? Have we wrapped up what is basically and essentially human in technical jargon so that the appearances are more significant than the real ones? Has our theories fragmented our understanding of people and situations? Has our training and our petty theories made spirituality a negotiable item? Has our preoccupation with our western masters in the art of counseling bereft us of our cultural moorings? Should our counseling be more rooted and grounded in our spirituality or its counterfeits? How better can we connect with people and situations more effectively than resorting to application of theories and alienating ourselves from the other person in whose care we have a part to play? Where are our families , communities and cultural practices in our road map of care?

    The living water should be given in an Indian cup, is a very well known statement of Sadhu Sundar Singh. It was less about evangelism, I would think. It was more about the way we should relate to other people and about sharing their humanity with us. The Sadhu was concerned about our meaningful communication in a cultural context; I have reasons to think, having lived in
Punjab for over a decade. People opened up to him, freely and honestly, and without any prejudices, his stature, distance or feelings of admiration and awe. There was something effortless and spontaneous about it. It is said about the saint in Tiruvanamali that he never uttered a word, he only listened, and at the end of it he raised his hands acknowledging their pain and grief and sorrow which they laid bare before him. People went away renewed, empowered and liberated at the end of the communication. Instead, did I make a theory out of every conversation and analyzed every encounter I went through during my patient visits?. In my verbatim discussions did I teach a particular school of thought of one of my masters, quoting extensively from my knowledge and training?

         At the end of such repeated exercises there was very little to be creative and enriching, and there was little room for the other to discover the possibilities of the work of the Holy Spirit. Did I always prove the theories which I borrowed in my teaching and training, I wonder. Whatever happened to the person of the pastoral carer and his spirituality is something I keep wondering about. Have some of you felt we are made to become divorced from the moorings of our culture and spirituality set in the cultural context. The artificiality and the superficiality of my care with the crutches of my analytical bent of mind dawned on me again and again. During my communications with certain members of other faiths, Sikh, Hindus and Moslems over a period of time, stretching across seven or eight years of pastoral care, the hurdles to communication was mainly due the tools that I had acquired than the message I had carried. They embraced my person more than the paraphernalia with which I was burdened. In that process we grew in friendship and the mutuality of our humanity came to assist us in our communication. The ground on which we were standing in that communication was a shared one, the ground of our understanding of sickness and suffering in a cultural context. They took the initiative to speak about their suffering and its meaning to them and where God was in those suffering, leaving a lot of room for prayer and a human response from me. We stood together at the foot of the cross, without analyzing suffering and pain, but embracing one another, by bridging the gaps of communication hitherto clouded by my knowledge of counseling techniques and experience of pastoral care. There was no one operating from a point of strength, and our friendship grew more and more without the trappings of theories and professionalizing care.

     In a smaller measure I too understood, through those encounters, why the Master and Lord could relate so well with people of such doubtable reputation, without being embarrassed. His dinner parties at Bethany and his loud encounters with the theorists and scholars at market places in defense of those who were more sinned against than sinning, are our role models in care and communication. At every encounter the common denominator was His empowering and embracing friendship. There was no threat involved, and there were no heights or altitudes assumed or any reservations upheld. Why did that woman disclose everything that she did, how did the other one feel so bold enough to touch his garments, and how did a third one make such passionate expressions of her feelings of gratitude at the banquet he was attending? People fear to touch our garments, we look so alien, and so intimidating, and they test the waters of our prejudice and pride from afar. There are no expressions of their agony on our being, because we have sought shelter in our petty theories and ideas that hinder the healing touch. Is there a way to shed those accumulated burdens of professional care in a cultural context like ours? The alabaster box of pastoral care refuses to break, and the fragrance of care is withheld within the confines of the hard porcelain, I suspect. It is only fitting and proper that we liberate the contents from the cup that can possibly contain such treasures of care and compassion.

            My thesis is that our spirituality, which is not driven by techniques and tools of the far too individualistic presuppositions, but one culturally rooted and grounded in the soil, alone is the answer. A lot of the unlearning has to take place if this is to be attained by people who care pastorally from a Christian perspective. There are lots of heathen western ingredients in our tradition and pastoral formation that we need to get rid of, if we want to reach out and touch people in our culture and country. It would imply a set of eastern assumptions and concepts of pastoral care, born out of the anguish, anger and pain of a world steeped in poverty, and suffering sickness and sorrow. It would have in its armoury the resources of the sense of community, family and culture, faith traditions and their understanding of suffering. We would be far richer by embracing such a concept of pastoral care in our encounters with suffering and pain on a daily basis .A spirituality which can go beyond the mere fringes of communication, and which can point to the incarnate God in Christ will be our role model and ideal .To the fullness of Christ, the depth, width and breadth of which we can not measure by our pastoral cups. Pastoral care tea should be served in a kullad, the earthen ware, rather than in the costly Chinaware, which we all adore so much, and which is held in great respect by its providers, promoters and consumers. We refuse to part with it, as our preference is the cup, and not its contents. The present pastoral cup is far too dear to us, historically and emotionally, that we dare not shatter it into a thousand pieces! The perfume of pastoral care would fill the house if only the alabaster box is broken at His feet. Are there any takers for such a risky proposition in pastoral care?

   Let me conclude with a quotation from some one who is carrying coal to
Newcastle, as it were. Some of us feel Susan Hill is taking sides with us, against the acknowledged schools of counselling and communication when she makes the following statement from her own experience of grief and bereavement.  “I have been appalled at the hungry way in which bereavement counsellors with all the psychological and social answers have pedalled their wares so publicly in the aftermath of recent mass tragedies. Of course such help may be needed, it should be avilable.But there are ways and ways of making it available. Experts in death and grief and bereavement -beware! “ (Susan Hill, writer and novelist at the International Conference on Grief and bereavement in Contemporary Society) (Bereavement Care, Volume 7,No 3,1988.)

      Was Susan Hill speaking out on behalf of what oft was deeply felt by easterners, but was never so well expressed by counsellors and therapists in the western world? If so, there is plenty of scope for building a viable  coalition of solidarity and support against perspectives and assumptions held so sacredly by the pundits in CPE, and pastoral gurus in schools of arm-chair academics...Can we begin a process of re-thinking care, counselling and communication from an eastern perspective, rooted and grounded in our cultural context? But who will bell the counselling cat, will we be able to get off the tiger, or will we be pressurized to continue to ride on it? Any ideas to radically transform pastoral care, and to bring the prodigal back to our household, from the strongholds of culturally alien ,yet acknowledged and acclaimed concepts and practices? Thank you my fellow pastors and care- givers of the Indian subcontinent for lending your reluctant ears to this note of dissent !